From ice giants to imposing mountains: what to do in Patagonia

Ranging from the Andean Comarca to Ushuaia, Argentina’s vast south is three jaw-dropping worlds in one

As mythical as it is authentic. As untamed as it is bucolic. As extreme as it is accessible. Argentine Patagonia is one and many, as many as you can fit into its 800,000 square kilometers of continental land, a surface equivalent to France and the UK put together. Its vastness includes lovely mountain towns with internationally renowned ski resorts, sheep farms by the shores of virgin lakes, vineyards that stand against ferocious oceanic winds, masses of endless glaciers, and ephemeral tulip fields. 

Patagonia is the country’s biggest geographical region, spread across six provinces — La Pampa, Neuquén, Río Negro, Chubut, Santa Cruz and Tierra del Fuego. You can find helpful information for organizing trips on the government’s tourism website, but before wading through the options, read on to learn more about what awaits. 

Picture-perfect mountaintops

Located in a fertile valley only 130 kilometers long, the Parallel 42 Andean Comarca (Comarca Andina del Paralelo 42) concentrates the immeasurable beauty of Patagonia’s mountain region. The picturesque towns of El Bolsón, Lago Puelo, Epuyén, El Hoyo, El Maitén and Cholila, straddling Río Negro and Chubut provinces, coexist with ancient myrtle and larch forests, glacial lakes, blueberry and strawberry farms, mountain shelters overseeing snowy peaks and fly-fishing lodges. 

Due to its privileged location, every corner of the Comarca has a mild climate that is ideal for year-round outdoor tours and sports like trekking, rafting, mountain biking, paragliding, kayaking and climbing. There is also the Puelo Lake National Park, with hidden waterfalls and a small beach bathed in the serene, bright turquoise waters.   

There’s good food with the good scenery, with the world-famous Patagonian roasted lamb and smoked trout, highlight flavors in the Comarca’s menu include agrochemical-free food (red berries, walnuts, saffron, morels, cypress, and bolete funghi) and homemade products (goat cheese, beer, honey).

The Challhuaquen Fishing Lodge, is a five-star fishing spot by the Futaleufú river, known as “the river of 100 rivers.” The itineraries are on average seven days long and attract experts in wading and floating, but also those who wish to catch their first Patagonian salmon or rainbow trout. An all-inclusive stay provides equipment, training and fishing licenses as well as luxury suites, spas, and restaurants in the Trevelin valley in Chubut. Reservations can be made here.

Wines and whales

Majestic, impressive, graceful…and fragile. The Southern right whale is Argentina’s living natural heritage. Although they’re no longer an endangered species, there are only an estimated 7,000 of them. Every year, between May and November, they reach the Golfo Nuevo to reproduce or finish training the whale calves they give birth to every three years.  

Thanks to the depth of the seabed off Chubut province’s coast, these hypnotic love dances, can be observed from the beaches of Puerto Madryn. You can also whale-watch in the ocean on certified tours.  

Puerto Madryn is the entryway to witness the exuberance of Argentine marine life, including the world’s largest Magellanic penguin colony in Punta Tombo and herds of giant elephant seals in Punta Delgada. But the luckiest prize is definitely getting to watch orca whales in the Valdés Peninsula perform the dangerous tactic of deliberately beaching themselves in order to hunt sea lion cubs. It’s a violent, sudden and strategic maneuver that has yet to be observed elsewhere.   

Puerto Pirámides is a whale sanctuary, the only town within the Valdes Península’s Protected Natural Area. Due to its privileged location in front of the deep and transparent waters of the Golfo Nuevo, it’s the starting point for the best whale-watching tours between May-July (the mating season), August-September (birthing season), and October-December (the calves’ weaning and training season). 

As a UNESCO World Natural Heritage site, nautical tours are carefully controlled by authorities to fit passenger numbers and tour operating hours around the stages of the whales’ mating season. That’s why there are only six authorized whale-watching tour companies, offering excursions aboard catamarans or rigid inflatable boats. Every seat has a 360º view. 

There is also a semi-submersible ship (called the Yellow Submarine, of course) with a cabin below the surface that allows you to “dive” with the whales and even listen to their hypnotic song, thanks to its state-of-the-art sonar. 

Perito Moreno glaciar. Source: Luca Galuzzi via Wikimedia Commons

Ice giants

Asleep yet alive. Without warning, the Perito Moreno glacier wakes up, stretches, cracks and sheds huge chunks of ice into the calm waters of Lago Argentino, with a white roar worthy of the end of the world. To this day, scientists do not know how to predict for sure when this will happen.

The Perito Moreno, in Santa Cruz province, is the most popular Patagonian destination for local and foreign tourists alike. It’s part of the Patagonian Continental Ice ecosystem, the world’s third largest and one of the greatest freshwater reserves in existence.   

Part of its popularity stems from the fact that it is the most accessible: it’s only 80 kilometers away from El Calafate, a town with luxury hotels and boutique cabins in the middle of the southern steppe. A system of runways gives you a direct look into the glacier: there are only 400 meters between visitors and the icy, deep blue spires of its front wall. The bravest visitors can even go on a mini trekking tour on the surface.  

Perito Moreno is not the only ice giant you can visit in Santa Cruz: there’s also the Upsala, Viedma and Spegazzini in the Los Glaciares National Park. Opening times, routes and open entrances vary by season: check the details here

The end of the world 

Perched at the tip of Tierra del Fuego, Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, is Patagonia’s grand finale. Apart from the typical boat tours to get a closer look at the island sanctuaries of birds, sea lions, and the unique Magellanic penguin colony, you must spend at least a day visiting the Tierra del Fuego National Park, where you’ll find over 40km of paths through pristine forests and lakes. It’s the only park in the country that borders the sea.

Ocean tours depart from Ushuaia to Les Éclaireurs, the most mythical lighthouse in Argentina. Built in 1920, it sits atop a rocky island that peaks above the waters of the temperamental Beagle Channel by just seven meters.
And speaking of mythical, you shouldn’t leave Ushuaia without trying the hot dog made of Tierra del Fuego king crab with squid ink bread— a work of irreverent genius by chef Jorge Monopoly, owner of the haute cuisine restaurant Kalma and winner of the Prix Baron B Édition Cuisine 2022.


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